29th July 2014

The real cost of our bottled water binge

If you order water in a restaurant, chances are the waiter will ask whether you want still or sparkling.

You are unlikely to be offered a choice between bottled and tap. But why? Our tap water is perfectly safe - so safe that it now meets stringent quality standards in 99.98% of cases, according to the Drinking Water Inspectorate. Some people argue that it is even safer than bottled water, which is vulnerable to contamination. Yet still we reach for the bottle.

In 2006 we glugged 2,275 million litres of bottled water, according to figures from the British Soft Drinks Association. Londoners alone drink the bottled water equivalent of just over one Olympic-sized swimming pool a week.

Our habit seems even more crazy when you consider how much we are willing to pay for our fix: bottled water typically costs around 500 times as much as tap water, the equivalent of paying £1,500 for a pint of beer or glass of wine.

A lotta bottle

So what are we buying? There are three types of bottled water in the UK. Natural mineral water comes from a named source and is untreated, so what you see is what you get. Then there’s spring water, which is also from a named source, but might have a passing acquaintance with chemicals.

Finally, there’s bottled drinking water, whose source cannot be identified – and might even be the tap. UK consumers drink far more mineral and spring than drinking water, which makes up only 13% of the market.

The American market is different. In the United States, PepsiCo, the soft drinks giant, last month agreed to spell out the letters ‘PWS’ on the label of its best-selling Aquafina brand. They stand for public water source, which is tap water to you and me. Coca-Cola also produces a brand of tap water – Desani.

It’s also a big success in the US, but its UK launch in 2004 was a disaster. The company became a laughing stock when the press revealed that Desani was little more than purified tap water.

What next, we wondered - bottled air? Coca-Cola then discovered that some of the water had been contaminated and the brand was axed in the UK a mere five weeks later. The industry does not seem to have suffered too much. Bottled water is now the world’s fastest-growing drinks sector and is worth £1.5 billion a year in the UK. It even outsells Coca-Cola in London.

Healthy for us, unhealthy for the wider world?

It’s partly down so some genius marketing by the big multinationals, such as Nestle, which owns such well-known brands as Buxton, Perrier, San Pellegrino and Vittel.

The drinks giants have persuaded us that bottled water is more than just a drink; it’s a lifestyle. Then there’s the suggestion of health benefits – all those wide-angle shots of mountains and talk of natural minerals. But there is no convincing proof that bottled water is any healthier than the ordinary stuff from the taps.

And it’s probably a lot unhealthier for the environment. Jeanette Longfield of the organisation Sustain says: “The bottles contribute to the half a million tonnes of plastic we throw away every year, and 'water miles' are adding to the damage caused by food miles.

It also takes an estimated two litres of water to produce a litre of bottled water – all because drinking tap water has become unfashionable.” So how do we make tap water as hip as Fiji - the latest must-have brand in the US which is also available over here. It costs about £1 a bottle and is shipped all the way from the eponymous Pacific island, where more than half the population doesn’t have safe, reliable drinking water.

Why are we transporting water halfway round the world when we could simply turn on the tap? Surely it’s ludicrous. It is also seems irresponsibly decadent when you consider that 1.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water – roughly one sixth of the global population.

Of course, the drinks industry does not want consumers to feel guilty about picking the bottle over the tap. Richard Laming of the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) says: “People aren’t necessarily choosing bottled instead of tap water; they are choosing bottled water over another packaged drink.”

The BSDA is also keen to stress the industry’s green credentials. Laming says: “Companies nowadays use less plastic in their bottles and are exploring ways to use more recycled plastic.

There is more work to be done, but we are moving in the right direction.” Of course, it’s also up to the consumer to make sure their water bottle does not end up in a landfill site. Local authorities too have a part to play in making it easier to recycle plastic.

Education, education, education

But it’s not enough for some people. Jenny Jones, Green Party member of the London Assembly, is trying to encourage more people to drink tap water. She says: “We need to show some independence and show that ordering tap water with your meal, or at the pub, is fashionable and the right thing to do.

Selling water in bottles and burning massive quantities of fossil fuels for its transportation does not make economic or environmental sense.” The Green Party could start by persuading the government to serve tap water. A recent Sustain survey of government departments and agencies shows that only two departments and one agency routinely serve tap water.

The Cabinet Office, the House of Commons, the Treasury and the Departments for Health and Education and Skills all bring out bottled water. A campaign is already underway in the US, where a number of cities have changed their ways. San Francisco’s mayor Gavin Newsom banned the use of city funds to buy bottled water at the beginning of last month.

Other mayors, notably in New York and Salt Lake City, are starting to follow his lead. So next time we are in the supermarket should we shun the display of bottled waters? You can’t beat bottled water for convenience. Some people also prefer the taste to tap water.

And it would be naïve to think that a ban would be all good. What about the loss of jobs and profits that keep the economy turning? A number of brands have taken a moral stand.

One and Belu, for example, use their profits to pay for clean water schemes in the developing world. So you might want to select your brand with care. It also makes sense to read the label carefully – and don’t just chuck out the empty bottle.

But will we turn on the tap more often? I’m not sure we’ve got the bottle.

« Back to Media and PR